MLB Playoff Umpires: Who's Watching the Watchmen While We Watch Their Slips?
Without question, the most thankless job in sports is held by officials.
Referees, umpires, line judges—all are as greatly despised as they are under-appreciated. And in many cases, the vitriol aimed at them is entirely unjust.
No one ever congratulates an ump for calling a good game or a ref for throwing a flag. Instead, fans rain vicious auditory attacks down upon the weary officials, whether or not they've earned them.
In this year's baseball playoffs, however, the bleacher creature jeers and jests are well-deserved.
Beginning with a botched hit-by-pitch call in the one-game playoff between the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, Major League umpires have been blowing calls left, right, in, out, and just about everywhere else.
Keep in mind, these umps are hand-picked to serve in the postseason specifically for their high quality of work during the regular season. Not that you'd notice this year.
In a close and heated battle to decide the final playoff contender and winner of the American League Central Division, Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
Had the proper call been made, Inge would have forced in a run and perhaps lead his team to victory.
As it happened, the ump missed the call and the Tigers were beaten in a gut-wrenching, extra-inning affair.
But the Twins have certainly not been the beneficiaries of every questionable call in these playoffs.
In fact, they were at the losing end of one of the worst, most blatant umpire blunders our great game has ever had the misfortune of seeing.
In extra-innings of a tight Game Two between Minnesota and New York in the first round of the playoffs, the Twins' Joe Mauer sliced a ground rule double down the left field line.
The ball dropped in front of Yankees left fielder Melky Cabrera, fair by at least a foot.
Somehow, that wasn't clear enough for Phil Cuzzi, who immediately called the ball foul.
Instead of allowing Mauer to take second, Cuzzi forced the at-bat to continue and eventually the Twins' catcher made an out. The next batter up stroked a single into right.
Had the correct call been made, Mauer would have been in scoring position for that single and the Twins would have taken the lead and been in position yet again to get the win.
Unfortunately, a pivotal Game Two victory alluded the Twins thanks to Cuzzi's error.
In that game, Cuzzi occupied the umpire's position down the left field foul line, a position—along with it's counterpart in right field—that exists only in the postseason and for the sole purpose of getting the most accurate possible perspective.
But when the game was literally on the line, Cuzzi made an inexcusable error, and then followed it with a plethora of sickening excuses.
He said he's not used to being in that position on the field. He said he might have been too close to the ball.
I say it's something far more disturbing: Either Cuzzi was “asked” to miss a call or two, or else he is simply inept and has no business being on a Major League field.
The same could be suggested about C.B. Bucknor, a well-respected veteran umpire who made an absolute mockery of two plays in Game One of the first round series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels.
Twice, Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick was thrown out on ground balls to the left side of the infield, and twice he was called safe.
Now, the first play was admittedly a little tough.
The throw from Boston shortstop Alex Gonzalez pulled first baseman Kevin Youkilis off the bag and forced him to make a swiping tag on a hard-charging Kendrick. Youk applied the tag, but from Bucknor's vantage, it was a difficult call.
The second play, however, was nearly as bad as Cuzzi's.
Kendrick shot a grounder to third baseman Mike Lowell, who fired a high throw over to first. Again, Youkilis had to make an athletic play, leaping into the air to save the throw, but he came down on first before Kendrick was within two steps of the bag.
Yet somehow, Bucknor called him safe.
You almost have to close your eyes and turn around to blow such an obvious call, but the veteran ump was standing less than 10 feet away and staring right at Youkilis' foot.
Boston went on to lose that game and eventually get swept out of the playoffs, but Bucknor's mistakes had nothing to do with it as the Angels failed to capitalize on them.
Cuzzi and the Twins weren't so lucky.
His error only compounded a miserable night for Minnesota, but could easily be looked at as the turning point in the series.
If Mauer's hit is called fair, the Twins could have split the series and had a shot to close it out in the Hubert H. Hefty Bag Metrodome.
It's only speculation, and the Yankees may very well have come back a second time and still walked off in dramatic fashion, but it does make you think.
Sports pundits have been thinking, too, and the question has finally been asked: As put forth by the Wall Street Journal, does baseball need umpires?
If ever there was a time to seriously talk about limiting these egregious errors in baseball, it's now, and this postseason has ushered it in.
The worst thing an official can do is make a mistake that affects the outcome of a game. It's already happened twice this year in the most critical time of the season—the playoffs.
So how do we fix the problem?
Adding two umpires down either foul line during the postseason was always a useless move by Major League Baseball, but if we're to believe Cuzzi's weak excuses, it may also be detrimental.
The next step would naturally be toward new technology.
Baseball introduced instant replay last season to help combat contested home run calls.
Cameras were placed along the outfield walls and on the foul poles of every Major League ballpark, and some have suggested that this should be expanded to include fair and foul calls within the field of play.
Others, like ESPN's Michael Wilbon, have asserted that the human element should be removed from baseball officiating altogether. He says he's tired of seeing, among other things, strike zones vary from ump to ump.
The technological replacement would then be some variation of the electronic strike zone fans see on television.
But have you actually paid attention to some of these systems?
TBS's “Pitch Trax” is laughable at best, and ESPN's “K-Zone” is only slightly better. If these are the alternatives, I'll take Cuzzi and Bucknor every time.
But it's more than that.
Baseball is one of the few sports that has been almost completely untouched by technological advances and this kind of change would only taint the relative purity of the game, at least as its played between the lines (steroids are a separate, off-field issue).
The human element also adds a certain unique charm to a game that is, by some accounts, centuries old.
The fact that each umpire calls his own strike zone might be an issue, depending on your perspective, but it is no reason to introduce awkward and unpleasant mechanical devices to take their place.
If umpires are too inconsistent, then baseball needs to gather them in the off-season and decide where the correct zone lies.
And if these playoffs are any indication, a meeting does need to take place, and soon.
To err is human. To ruin a game? Now that takes an umpire.
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